What are the greatest American films ever made? Recently the BBC polled 62 film critics around the world and compiled a list of the 100 greatest American films. The BBC list blends well-established canonical classics — no one will be surprised that the top three films are “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather,” and “Vertigo” — along with some head-scratching choices. (Is Hitchcock’s “Marnie” really one of the top 50 American films? Has “Forrest Gump” really stood the test of time?)
One much-noted point about the BBC list is how few Academy Award Best Picture winners made the list (just 12). Naturally, I’m interested in a different comparison: How does the BBC list compare to the 1995 Vatican film list?
The Vatican list, published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in honor of the centenary of the motion picture, is both narrower and broader than the BBC list, with 45 unranked films drawn from all over the world listed under the three categories of “Religion,” “Values,” and “Art.”
Like the BBC list, the Vatican list includes choices both standard (“The Bicycle Thief,” “The Seventh Seal”) and dubious (Liliana Cavani’s dreadful “Francesco,” starring — yes, really — Mickey Rourke as St. Francis of Assisi and Helena Bonham Carter as St. Clare).
Still, it’s interesting to note that, of the films on the Vatican list that were eligible for the BBC list (14 by my count), critics chose half. That’s considerably better than the Oscars did; of 87 Best Picture winners, the critics chose only 12, i.e., about 1/7th.
Here are the 7 overlapping films, with their BBC list ranking and their Vatican list category. They’re all pretty much no-brainers — although only one, “Schindler‘s List,” won Best Picture.
- Citizen Kane (1, Art)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (4, Art)
- The Wizard of Oz (34, Art)
- It’s a Wonderful Life (46, Values)
- Modern Times (67, Art)
- Stagecoach (77, Art)
- Schindler’s List (78, Values)
What about the American films on the Vatican’s list that didn’t make the cut with the critics polled by the BBC? Here they are, with notes.
> Ben-Hur (Religion). William Wyler’s New Testament–era epic, starring Charlton Heston, is the lone American film on the Vatican list in the Religion category. Apparently Hollywood doesn’t do religion very well in the opinion of the Vatican list-makers, who chose instead films by Carl Dreyer (“The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Ordet”) and Andrei Tarkovsky (“Andrei Rublev,” “The Sacrifice”) as well as British productions “A Man for All Seasons” and “The Mission,” both scripted by Robert Bolt.
Although “Ben-Hur” won a record 11 Academy Awards and was the second highest-grossing film in history after “Gone With the Wind,” its status with critics, like many Best Picture winners, is less exalted. The critics preferred another Wyler film, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (no. 15 on the BBC list).
> Gandhi (Values). Another Best Picture winner, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi, “Gandhi” might not have been on critics’ radar as an American film, since it’s mainly a UK/India production. Still, an American company, Carolina Bank, did contribute funding, so it was eligible.
Either way, “Gandhi” is the kind of tony prestige picture that scores higher with Oscar voters than critics. 1982 Best Picture nominees that lost to “Gandhi” included “E.T. The Extraterrestrial,” no. 91 on the BBC list.
> Intolerance (Values). D. W. Griffith’s landmark silent epic is closely linked to a film that does appear on the BBC list, Griffith’s Civil War epic “The Birth of a Nation.” The Vatican list-makers probably went with “Intolerance” over “Birth of a Nation” because of the latter’s racist milieu: Not only does “Birth of a Nation” celebrate the original Ku Klux Klan (its source is a novel and play called “The Clansman”), it actually inspired the formation of the second Klan.
Conversely, the critics may have gone with “Birth of a Nation” for its greater historical significance, though a case can be made that “Intolerance” (which Griffith made in response to criticism over “Birth of a Nation”) is as accomplished a film.
> Chariots of Fire (Values). Like “Gandhi,” Best Picture winner “Chariots of Fire” is a well-mounted British prestige picture made with some American funding (20th Century Fox). Its themes of resistance to anti-Semitism, willingness to sacrifice for religious convictions, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy commended it to the Vatican list-makers; the critics preferred another 1981 Best Picture nominee, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (no. 82 on the BBC list).
> On the Waterfront (Values). Yet another Best Picture winner, Elia Kazan’s dockyard drama made the Vatican list for its social justice milieu. Inspired by actual events, the tale of mob-connected union bosses exploiting New York–area dockworkers whom Karl Malden’s socially conscious Father Barry tries to rally against their oppressors in his memorable “sermon on the docks.” The film’s most iconic speech, though, is Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue.
The film’s reputation in cinema circles is somewhat marred by its association with the director’s cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, to whom Kazan named eight former Communist party members in the film industry. In fact, the film is widely seen as Kazan’s self-justifying response to his critics.
> Fantasia (Art). One of the weaknesses of the BBC list is that it includes only one animated film, “The Lion King” — a strangely populist choice of an (in my opinion) overrated picture. “The Lion King” is inferior to any number of Pixar movies (“Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Wall-E”), not to mention other Disney classics, from “Pinocchio” to “Beauty and the Beast,” and certainly “Fantasia” (the “Sistine Chapel of Disney animation,” as I’ve called it). This is one case where the Vatican list-makers clearly made a better selection than the critics.
> Little Women (Art). George Cukor’s endearing adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo March, is a lovely film, but in a way its presence on the Vatican list is even more of a head-scratcher than “Francesco,” which is at least commended by its subject. (“Francesco” is also the only film on either list directed by a woman, though that doesn’t make it any better.)
At least one other convergence worth noting: No. 6 on the BBC list is F. W. Murnau’s silent melodrama “Sunrise”; the Vatican list includes another Murnau film, the classic vampire movie “Nosferatu,” made in Germany.
Finally, obviously the BBC list includes a number of films made in the 20 years since the Vatican list was compiled. If the Vatican list were updated today, it would very likely include at least one more BBC list pick: “The Tree of Life” (no. 79), Terrence Malick’s dreamlike meditation on life, the universe, and everything through the twin lenses of faith and reason, religion and science. Another possibility: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (No. 99) — one of the relatively few Best Picture winners to make the BBC list.